Many may not have heard of Robert Phifer, a Concord native born on Union Street in 1849; but anyone who has visited the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh has gazed upon works he made it possible to view.
Now, 14 pieces of that collection will be returning to Concord for display in the Concord Museum until mid-July.
Phifer became wealthy by age 32 as a planter and cotton buyer. Advised by his doctors to give up his business for health reasons, Phifer began to travel, play golf, paint and collect art.
In addition to collecting paintings from renowned artists, Phifer used his travels to study art, eventually becoming an accomplished artist in his own right.
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By the early 20th century, Phifer had accumulated a comprehensive art collection and began to wonder how it would be cared for and displayed after his death. Phifer willed his collection to the North Carolina Art Society, along with certain contingent bequests from his estate.
Phifer died Oct. 16, 1928, with the bulk of his estate in trust, with the principal to pass to the art society.
The Phifer collection of paintings, and later substantial funds received from his trusts, ensured the survival of the society and led to the establishment of the country’s first publicly funded state art museum.
In 1960, the society transferred the Phifer collection to the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The society continues to administer the Phifer funds. More than 230 works of art, including some by Claude Monet and Georgia O’Keeffe, have been bought in whole or in part with Phifer bequest funds.
‘Great for our community’
Marty McGee was discussing Phifer and his contributions to the N.C. Museum of Art with Judge Clarence Horton Jr. in 2012, when the idea hit him.
“We ought to see if they will let us borrow some of their artwork,” McGee recalled thinking. “I didn’t know what a long shot it was at the time.”
With the help of the Historic Cabarrus Association Inc., Cabarrus Arts Council, the city of Concord and Cabarrus County, McGee acquired a loan of 14 pieces from the state museum belonging to The Robert F. Phifer Collection.
On March 26, a grand-opening celebration was held in the Hotel Concord. Laura Fravel, an art historian with state museum of art, gave a presentation on Phifer, his contribution to the arts and his collection.
Research into the Phifer Collection is ongoing, Fravel said; Phifer built it buying overseas and at auctions in New York. “These were shrewd investments, quality artists at bargain prices,” she said.
The collection includes some of Phifer’s own work.
One of his paintings that will be on exhibit at the Concord Museum, “Red Snow – Mt. Fuji, Lake Hakone,” circa 1894, is an oil-on-panel. Fravel said Phifer painted it as a gift for a cousin and probably never thought it would be displayed in a museum.
Concord City Councilwoman Ella Small called the exhibit “fascinating.”
“He captured a large variety of scenes,” Small said. “They are so detailed, they almost come to life.”
The works have not been publicly exhibited since 1973 and will be on display at the museum at 65 Union St. S. from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday through July 14.
“I think this s a great thing for our community,” McGee said. “I hope people will come out and enjoy it.”
Marty Price is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.